Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Harris Gets Moral

The Onion's AV Club has a quite-good interview with Sam Harris up this week regarding his new book, and his belief that science can help us to find a "universal morality." If you're interested in religion and/or morality on an intellectual/emotional/spiritual level it's worth a few minutes of your time.

I am sure that Harris is a good, decent man, but I don't much agree with his attitudes and beliefs toward religion as a whole. Too often he comes across as a really smart, really articulate zealot - an Evangelist who has replaced his cross with an equation. To wit:

The AV Club: ":Let's say science can and will make factual claims about morality. How then do you implement these moral truths to effect change in the world? Wouldn't these truth claims lead to a kind of moral colonialism where the so-called developed world that has arrived at these conclusions goes around the rest of the world to police or enforce these moral truths in other societies that haven't discovered them yet?"

Harris: "Clearly, if we could do that, we should do that."

This is nonsense, and it's kinda spooky to boot. Harris goes on at greater length on this topic, but the essential point is right there in that one sentence. I suppose we can take reassurance from this, at least: As long as your moral truths align with Harris' you won't need to worry about an invasive occupying force that proselytizes to you and attempts to convert you (sort of like a Crusade, one might say).

Never you mind that Harris' morality involves the sanctioning of the same sort of colonialism that he finds so dangerous when couched in religious terms. And nevermind that you may be wondering to yourself about things like "moral grey areas" and "situational morality" and "white lies" and the fact that different cultures have differing moralities. Native Americans thought that "owning" land was absurd. White settlers thought that they were absurd for having such a hippie-dippie philosophy, and murdered a ton of them. Who was "right"? For Harris it's as simple as food:

Harris: "Multiple right answers to moral questions doesn't at all mean that there's not a clear difference between right and wrong answers. The analogy I give for this is food. I would never argue that there is one right food to eat, but there are clearly many things that are not food that will kill us. The distinction between food and not food is still quite clear and scientifically salient."


Except, things aren't quite so clear-cut outside of these rigidly-and-falsely-defined categories. Doritos are food, but eating Doritos is bad for me (and bad for anyone in my immediate breathing vicinity). So, are Doritos "food" or "not food"? If they are food, but they're "bad" food will I be allowed to eat them because I choose, using my free will, to eat them? Or will Harris come in and act all colonial with me? What if a certain food is a delicacy, but might also kill you? Like, say, Blowfish? Should the fact that blowfish is deadly when not properly prepared mean that no one should be permitted to prepare blowfish? Rationally, we know that it makes more sense to eat nothing but the healthiest of foods all day, every day. How many of us choose to do that, all the while knowing that we're being "irrational" in the process? We're not (totally) stupid. We know Doritos aren't good. But we also know that they taste good. And while that's irrational, its also pretty indisputable. What happens when a certain kind of morality "tastes" good to a group of people, but Harris and Co. decide that its "bad"? Who is the ultimate arbiter in that conflict? Reason? Whose reason? What happens to the losers when they refuse to get with the program?

I could play this game all day. Attempting to place food into two categories as some kind of illustration on ascertainable moral truth is to insist that there are only two types of women in the world: Gingers and Mary Anns (For the youngsters: This is a reference to Gilligan's Island).

And if this is true of food, then how much more true is it of moral decisionmaking? Harris is correct when he says that "Science is done in the context of a larger reality in which we know that there are questions we could not possibly answer, but we know they have answers." He is also correct to insist that the lack of an answer is no excuse for not seeking one.

Where he is arguably incorrect is in assuming that stating this sort of stuff absolves him from explaining why science is allowed to take this stance ("We can't explain it! But we know that there's an answer! And that answer is...maybe...string theory?") while religion is to be mocked and/or dismissed for the same sentiment ("We can't explain it! But we know that there's an answer! And that answer is...we think...God?").

/End Rant.

1 comment:

  1. I was reminded of your analysis when reading this speech ( http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/05/text-of-justice-david-souters-speech/ ) the other day.

    I am also reminded of Lanier's clever comparison of the rapture to the singularity. http://bit.ly/cxphQm